Back in September, shortly after DeMarcus Lawrence was limping off a practice field with a broken foot, he tapped out a hopeful-but-entirely-predictable social media post to raise the spirits of the Dallas Cowboys faithful. It was the kind of thing that is widely shared but scarcely believed when it comes to this franchise, a team that has seen for decades its best-laid plans break down.
“Will be back and ready for war,” Lawrence tweeted. “Believe it.”
What Lawrence and the Cowboys didn’t know at the time was that it was only the first moment of adversity on the horizon. Within a month, underperforming linebacker Jaylon Smith would be cut, rising defensive end Randy Gregory would be sidelined twice — first with COVID-19 and then with a calf injury — and a litany of young players would be pressed into action as depth chart attrition chipped away at the unit.
Unlike past iterations of Dallas defenses that too often folded under the weight of injuries or the spotlight of expectations, something happened in Lawrence’s absence. The Cowboys were forced to be creative and young in spots. And suddenly it got a whole lot better. To the point that when Lawrence returned in December, Dallas went about dispatching three middle NFC teams (including the Washington Football Team twice) in a fashion that turned expectations upside down.
What if the Cowboys franchise that we thought would be celebrated as a boat-racing offense was actually going to define itself as the league’s biggest playmaking defense? And what if Lawrence — the $20 million a season man — wasn’t even the best player on the unit by the time he returned?
That would make Dallas one of the most intriguing, and potentially terrifying, defenses in the NFL. It's precisely what it looked like on Sunday night, showcasing itself on a national stage in which the Cowboys incinerated the Washington Football Team 56-14. It was an outcome that — despite coming against a reeling Washington team — will serve notice to the rest of the NFC Super Bowl hopefuls.
This is not the team you want to face in the postseason. Not if you’re the Green Bay Packers. Not if you’re the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Not if you’re the Los Angeles Rams or any other contender. As good as the offense could be, the defense is the starring attraction right now, capable of (as Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke put it Sunday night) “ass whooping” arguably anyone.
The Cowboys are capable of scoring touchdowns like Sunday's 40-yard pick-six from Lawrence, which saw him operating from the defensive tackle spot when he deftly tipped a Heinicke pass into the air, then caught it and raced down the sideline before making a remarkable cutback to get into the end zone. That was a franchise-tying record sixth turnover returned for a touchdown. The Cowboys also blocked a punt for a touchdown and picked off Heinicke a second time, with Trevon Diggs intercepting his 11th pass of the season while tying the Dallas franchise record with two games remaining. Rookie wrecking ball Micah Parsons also notched his 13th sack of the season (10 1/2 in his last eight games) to further plant himself into the league’s defensive MVP conversation.
With Lawrence rounding back into shape, the Dallas defense now has four legitimate high-end difference-makers in Lawrence, Diggs, Parsons and Gregory. And it says nothing of the Cowboys' overall depth in the unit, which looks younger, faster and capable of wreaking havoc on quarterbacks under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. It’s a unit that is long and rangy, and capable of making plays on the ball — traits shared by some of Quinn’s best defenses back with the Seattle Seahawks, when his units were stacked with alpha playmakers at every level.
Lawrence called the unit the best defense he has played with in his career. And that may very well be the case by the time the season ends. Both Diggs and Parsons will likely land on the All-Pro team. Parsons will be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. If Diggs isn’t the best cornerback in football, he’s in the conversation. And Gregory, well, he has become a cog on what is arguably the best defensive front in the NFL when Parsons plays on the edge and Lawrence rolls inside to defensive tackle. It's a foursome that looks very similar to the New York Giants' Super Bowl-winning defensive line that carved a path to a championship when they started rolling defensive end Justin Tuck inside to tackle and playing him between defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.
If you’re not old enough to be familiar with that 2007 season's championship team, pull the clips and compare that trio with what Dallas is fielding when everyone is healthy. It might not be a perfect match, but the same kind of juice is there.
That should worry the rest of the NFC. Since locking up the NFC East this weekend, the goals for Dallas got simpler. As Lawrence put it Sunday night, “Win every playoff game. Make the Super Bowl. Win the Super Bowl.”
For the first time in arguably decades, this Dallas team might be able to pull that off.